Speak up and judge righteously, and defend the cause of the oppressed and needy. Proverbs 31:9
The recent news report that poverty in Haiti was driving people to eat mud is one of the most disturbing accounts on the impact of the growing gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in this world. With first hand experience of street children in India and AIDS orphans in Southern Africa, I am acutely aware of the devastation that poverty causes.
But we don’t have to venture far to encounter victims of poverty. The 1996/97 Poverty Survey in Barbados indicated that 7,000 households or 35,000 Barbadians were living below the poverty line.
In the absence of more recent data, we are left to wonder how many more Barbadians have entered the ranks of the poor and vulnerable. Even though there have been considerable gains locally in the physical and economic infrastructure, our social infrastructure is in acute need of attention.
The appointment of Undene Whittaker as the adviser to Government on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is to be applauded. She, like her predecessor, is a powerful advocate for the disadvantaged. But more importantly her appointment symbolises our Government’s continued commitment to the poor and disadvantaged of our nation. But this is by no means enough.
In 2000, global leaders, including the then Prime Minister of Barbados, gathered at the United Nations to commit themselves to the Millennium Declaration, a statement of intent to reduce poverty by 2015 through eight ambitious goals and targets to combat poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women.
However, the report card in 2008 at the halfway mark is not inspiring. Today, the gap between the worlds’ rich and poor is now wider. Global injustices such as poverty, AIDS, malnutrition, conflict and illiteracy remain rife. Extreme poverty kills more that 30,000 people each day as a result of disease, lack of medicine and unsafe drinking water.
Nelson Mandela, at the Make Poverty History campaign in London in 2005, condemned poverty and inequality as “terrible scourges of our times” which “rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.”
Notwithstanding the biblical teaching, the poor need not always be with us. There is an appreciation that today’s poverty is not a Divine imposition but largely a man-made phenomenon and as such can be eradicated.
The Gospel and our ethical principles place service to the poor and vulnerable at the centre of our Christian life and witness. As exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan, we are all called to love our neighbour.
Recently, I encountered a situation of a young student at one of our older secondary schools who goes to school hungry almost every day. Worse yet, this was not an isolated case. As a prospering nation, our collective response to those in need is grossly inadequate.
If we are to eradicate poverty in Barbados, each of us has a role to play. However, dealing with poverty is not an easy work nor is it often comfortable. We are often left feeling hopeless or powerless. We despair when confronted by a seemingly insurmountable task, made more difficult by a largely indifferent humanity. But we will surely fail if we lose hope.
Jeffrey Sachs, a renowned economist and UN adviser, in his book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time provides reason to be optimistic. He lays out an attainable plan for ending extreme poverty in 20 years. If we work together, our collective effort will eradicate poverty.
To eradicate poverty a total-person approach (TPA), as emphasised by Jesus of Nazareth, is required. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry while teaching them how to find meaning and fulfilment through faith. A TPA is an integrated response to people’s physical, psychological, and spiritual needs.
Increasingly, poverty eradication programmes are concentrating on this approach, holding to the time-honoured philosophy that if you give someone a fish you can feed them for a day but if you also teach them how to fish you can feed them for a lifetime.
Any success in eradicating poverty in Barbados will require the commitment and action all major stakeholders in our society to the plight of the poor.
Our Government will be needed to design and implement the appropriate public policies. Our private sector, unions and other economic actors will be needed to help generate the necessary resources. Our churches, faith-based and other community organisations, will be needed to encourage faith, hope and charity. But ultimately, all of us will be needed to get involved in some way.
Remembering that the most significant advances in human history have been the consequence of the small steps taken by ordinary people, each of us needs to take that vital step an become our brothers and sisters keeper.
May God continue to guide us.
Guy Hewitt is a minister of religion and social development specialist. He can be contacted on <firstname.lastname@example.org>